Understanding and Governing the Global Business of Forced Labour

How and why does forced labour emerge within the global political economy?

This three-year research project, funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council Grant, investigates and compares the business models of forced labour within global agricultural supply chains led by UK-based companies, focussing on case studies of tea and cocoa.

Project Overview

Two Thai boats floating on the sea


Deepening concern about forced labour and slavery has paralleled the growth of the world's biggest retail and manufacturing companies in the era of globalisation. Rather than employing their own workforces, these companies coordinate the production of goods through commercial contracts with thousands of arms-lengths supplier firms. Governing the labour standards of thousands of small, distant global supply chain partners is a serious challenge for states and industry. One of the gravest and growing risks brand companies face is suppliers' use of forced labour, human trafficking, or slavery as a strategy to reduce costs.

Indeed, the risk of forced labour is now significant: the International Labour Organization estimates that the illegal profits derived annually from the extraction of forced labour by private businesses exceeds £89 billion, and most forced labour takes place in the private sector. From forced labour on UK farms to slavery on Thai fishing boats, perpetrators of illegal labour practices pose a growing threat to their reputation, legitimacy, and profits. In light of the urgent challenge of detecting and eradicating forced labour, there is considerable merit in trying to better understand its business dynamics and how illegal profits are derived from it.  

Studying forced labour provides an important lens into the impact of liberalisation polices and global economic change over the last several decades. While structural factors including 'poverty' and 'globalisation' are increasingly acknowledged as drivers, there is a dearth of analysis regarding when, why and how these systems and inter-related dynamics like inequality and labour market insecurity give rise to severe labour exploitation including forced labour. Through case studies of UK-based corporations and labour practices in India and Ghana, this project will shed light into how and why forced labour manifests in the global economy and the systematic changes that would be required to eliminate it. 


Two women picking tea leaves on a large tea plantation

About the research

This research aims to achieve an in-depth understanding of how the business of forced labour operates in global supply chains. In other words, it will deepen our understanding of how individuals or organisations profit from forced labour within the context of formal industry, and of the governance gaps that give rise to such dynamics. Key questions include:

  1. Why is forced labour such an endemic feature of the contemporary global economy?
  2. What factors create business 'demand' for forced labour within global agricultural supply chains?
  3. How do perpetrators of forced labour escape detention by the authorities, and by the companies 'leading' these supply chains?
  4. What cost structures and value and revenue distributions characterise the business models of forced labour deployed within chocolate and tea commodity chains?
  5. What impact do market-based corporate social responsibility initiatives (including certification and codes of conduct) to combat the business of forced labour have on such practices?

The research questions are being investigated through a range of qualitative methods including: elite interviews with key industry and government informants; ethnographic interviews and a survey with tea workers and cocoa workers. Supply chain analysis will be used to understand how firm-to-firm dynamics shape the context in which forced labour manifests within global supply chains.


Image of a large rusty chain hanging against an orange wall


The new evidence base generated through this project will contribute to ongoing academic and policy debates on the causes of, and systemic political economic solutions to, forced labour in global commodity production.The research will also make original contributions to several scholarly literatures:

  1. It will contribute to the growing interdisciplinary literature that understands forced labour as a key feature of the contemporary global economy (cf. Lerche 2007; McNally 2010; Phillips 2011; Phillips et. al. 2014; Rogaly 2008; Strauss 2012).
  2. It will build on and extend existing mapping and analysis of the shifting contours of corporate organisation and governance (Bakker & Gill 2003; Cox 1987; Cutler 2003; Soederberg 2010; Taylor 2008), deciphering and deepening connections between these shifts and the expansion of forced labour.
  3. It will make an original contribution to the well-established literature in global political economy that addresses the power of corporations to govern conditions within global supply chains (Gereffi & Korzeniewicz 1994; Taylor 2008, 2011) and the impact of brand retailers on labour conditions in particular (Appelbaum 2006, 2009; Appelbaum & Lichtenstein, 2006; Quan 2008).

This study will bridge these theoretically distinct yet empirically overlapping literatures to expand our understanding of the critical points of intersection, and will contribute to the emergence of a more holistic theory to understand forced labour’s roots in the global political economy.


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Yale University 

International Labour Organization

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